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Erin Gray: 'Buck Rogers's Col. Wilma Deering, Then And Now

Icons | June 5, 2019

Left: Erin Gray on an episode of 'Love Boat' from 1980. Right: Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering on 'Buck Rogers In The 25th Century.' Sources: Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images; IMDB

As Colonel Wilma Deering on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Erin Gray was her era's definitive TV space sweetheart. Gray combined her model's looks with a charismatic presence -- and Wilma's take-charge manner to make her a reasonable substitute for Princess Leia as space-opera fans awaited another Star Wars film. That's not a comparison out of thin air, either -- Buck Rogers and its competitor Battlestar Galactica were launched to cash in on the public's hunger for Star Wars-like galactic drama, and the brunette Deering in her white jumpsuit, brandishing a big space blaster, wasn't far off from Carrie Fisher in her white Leia robe doing the same.

Buck Rogers lasted two seasons, from 1979-81, while Battlestar Galactica lasted just one. They were arguably the same show, with a key difference any fan would point out: Buck Rogers had Erin Gray in spandex space garb, and Battlestar Galactica did not.

The Best Jumpsuit In The Galaxy

Left: Gil Gerard and Erin Gray as Buck and Wilma. Right: Gray in her jumpsuit. Source: IMDB

And there was the jumpsuit -- actually, more than one jumpsuit. The white one (which was actually two pieces) was the flight suit, for when Deering piloted her own space fighter. Then there were the glittery purple spandex jumpsuits for everyday, around-the-space station wear. (There was also a red two-piece spandex getup, and a different white outfit with a weird cap that made her look like a server in some restaurant at the end of the universe.) The colonel's costuming is really where the legend of Erin Gray begins -- Wilma Deering was truly an object of fascination for the young, male fans of the show, and for Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) himself, who became romantically involved with her. How could he not? Not only was she a knockout, as his superior officer she had a way of ordering him around that he clearly enjoyed.

Gray didn't have a problem with the costume, she told Den of Geek:

They wanted it very form-fitting and tight. That’s all I knew. ...it’s interesting, because I came from the world of modelling and fashion, so I wasn’t really shocked or uncomfortable about wearing the costume. I’d been one of the original Sports Illustrated models, so my sexuality, showing my body, I was comfortable with that. The thing was, I didn’t mind being on-camera that way, but I couldn’t walk around the studio with my spandex – I always had to wear a bathrobe over it!

Colonel Wilma Deering first captured the hearts and minds of America’s youth with the movie version of Buck Rogers (1979). The movie garnered such popularity, it quickly became a television show. Naturally, Erin Gray’s drop-dead figure in a very tight jumpsuit was a big part of the winning formula.

A Role Model For Young Female Viewers As Well

Colonel Wilma Deering In All Her Glory. Source: (pinterest.com)

Despite the body-clinging attire, Erin Gray’s character represented one of the few examples of a woman in a leading role at the time. Not only could young boys dream of getting trapped in a space lockers with Erin Gray, but young women could see a woman in the position of power. Gray enjoyed the pioneering role her character represented, “I was the first female colonel. I enjoyed being that kind of role model for young women watching the show. A woman can be a colonel! A woman can be in charge! Those were new ideas then.”

She told Den Of Geek:

A lot of women will come up and say to me that I’m their first strong female role-model, and I didn’t realise at the time that that’s what I was doing. The character of the Colonel was the first strong woman in a strong position…the young women would come up and say ‘You’re the reason I joined the air-force, because I wanted to fly fighter jets’. I’ve had a woman tell me that, and I was dumbfounded, I got chills! Policewomen too...how nice. How cool, and what an effortless way to influence a whole generation.

Erin Gray Was A Successful Model First

Erin Gray in her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue modeling days. Source: Pinterest

Erin Gray wasn't born Wilma Deering -- in fact, her life started on an island paradise. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii before it became a state, Erin Gray enjoyed her tropical beginnings until she moved to California at age eight. As a youngster, she found early success as a model, winning assignments and appeared as a dancer in the show Malibu U. After some dabbling in mathematics at UCLA, she dropped out and moved to New York City to pursue modeling.

It didn’t take long for the blue-eyed beauty to become one of the top models in the country, earning a six-figure salary. She was featured in the 1969 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

Acting Takes Center Stage

Erin Gray and Gil Gerard in Buck Rogers

As she continued her raging success as a model in New York, Gray would fly back to Los Angeles for television auditions. Her first starring role came on Evening in Byzantium. After receiving a solid reception on the miniseries, Universal Studios signed her to a seven-year contract. That lucrative contract directly led to a certain skin-tight, one-piece jumpsuit that young men all over America still remember to this day. 

Almost The Female Magnum P.I.

A Jumpsuit For Every Occasion. Source: (youtube.com)

After finding roaring success on Buck Rogers, she made an appearance on another hit tv show: Magnum P.I. Her character, security expert Joy "Digger" Doyle was slated to become a recurring character, potentially even a spin-off show. Unfortunately, Joy ‘Digger’ Doyle didn’t pop in the same way that Colonel Deering did. Thankfully for Gray, another big hit came down the chute. 

TV Success, Round 2: Silver Spoons

The Ageless Beauty Erin Gray. Source: (pinterest.com)

After working with another Rogers -- country singer Kenny Rogers -- on the movie Six Pack, Gray found her longest-running show in her career: Silver Spoons. For seven years in the '80s, Gray played Kate Summers, the voice of reason to a childish Ricky Schroder and his stuffy father, played by Joel Higgins. Working as a personal assistant to Higgins, Gray and he battled through sexual tension for three seasons. Eventually, they gave in to the "will-they-or-won't-they" drama, and got married. 

What Erin Gray Will Be Remembered For

Jumpsuit Or Not Erin Gray Captured America's Attention. Source: (youtube.com)

Despite Silver Spoons reaching syndication, Gray will be forever remembered by her skin-tight jumpsuit and commanding presence on Buck Rogers. Today, Gray runs a casting agency, specializing in booking fantasy and sci-fi stars for meet and greets. She also teaches Tai Chi in her free time. 

Tags: Buck Rogers In The 25th Century | Childhood Crushes | Erin Gray | Science Fiction | Silver Spoons | TV From The 1980s | TV In The 1970s

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!